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Pakistan-Educated Afghans: Refugees in Their Own Home

KABUL, Afghanistan—A recent graduate with a degree in economics from a top private business school in Pakistan, Shamsur Jabarkhel spends his days scouring the Internet for job openings. Yet he has been unable to land a job in Afghanistan, his newly adopted country and the birthplace of his parents.

“Until now, I have applied to about a dozen jobs, but I haven’t received any responses,” said Jabarkhel, 23, who was born in Peshawar, Pakistan. “I am well qualified. I have a bachelor’s degree in economics. I have a diploma in business administration. My grades were also good at my university. I was in the top 5 percent of my class. I think I am well qualified, but I still could not receive any responses from these jobs.”

Jabarkhel is one of three million Afghan refugees who had lived in Pakistan for 20 years or more when tensions between the two countries heightened late last year.  The Pakistani government began deporting them, eventually sending more than 500,000 Afghans living in Pakistan back to their families’ country of origin.

Today, Pakistani authorities are making life difficult for those who remain. Police stop Afghans on the street, asking for residency papers. Employers and other institutions look askance at their job applications.

As a result, Jabarkhel is part of a wave of educated young Afghans looking for jobs in their ancestral homeland. But that’s a difficult task for returnees trying to navigate an unfamiliar land and language, and their hardships could be emblematic of the problems that lie ahead for refugees from other conflicts as they head back to their homelands, whether by choice or by force. (See a related article, “Oxfam Urges Help for Youths Returning to Mosul.”)

“I’m trying my best to find a job,” said Sameer Barakzai, 27, who was born in Afghanistan and whose family moved to the Pakistani border town of Peshawar in the early 1990s. “Even if it’s based on merit and your ability or talent, I don’t think it really matters in comparison to having connections.”

That’s a major stumbling block for newcomers, say aid workers and others who are trying to boost economic development in Afghanistan.

“The overwhelming majority of people returning haven’t been in Afghanistan for many, many years, so their links to the country sometimes can be a bit weak,” said Laurence Hart, chief of the International Organization for Migration’s mission there.

It’s a reality Ibrahim, 27, knows well.

Ibrahim, who asked that his real name not be used for fear of reprisals against his family, was optimistic when he and his family returned to Afghanistan after living for decades in Pakistan. He had just obtained his master’s degree in international relations from the University of Peshawar, in 2015. He rented a room in a hostel in Kabul with other young Afghans while his family returned to their home province of Kunduz, in an area still under Taliban control.

It took him more than a year and a half and around 200 job applications, he said, to finally find a job with an international nongovernmental organization. That was a difficult time, he said, but also a learning experience that taught him not to give up. “It made me fight,” he said.

Unfriendly Workplaces

Even for the lucky ones who find a job, however, the workplace can be tough because of discrimination against returnees.

Jamal Niazi, 27, like Jabarkhel, graduated from the Institute of Management Sciences in Peshawar, with a degree in business administration. He returned to Afghanistan early this year, and after applying for dozens of jobs, he eventually found one with good pay—around $700 a month—as an office manager at a private company.

He lasted 11 days.

Niazi was the only employee with a degree from Pakistan and who had recently returned to Afghanistan, after having lived in Peshawar his entire life. His coworkers called him “ISI,” a reference to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, and scoffed at his degree from Pakistan. Niazi says he also faced discrimination as a Pashto speaker. Pashto is one of the two official languages of Afghanistan, but the other—Dari, a form of Farsi—is more widely spoken in cities, government offices, and universities.

In the end, the situation at his workplace became unbearable, and Niazi quit his job. Once again unemployed, he has applied to around 25 jobs in marketing, human resources and management at private companies. He’s had 15 interviews and has been shortlisted as a candidate numerous times, but still hasn’t received a job offer.

Niazi’s experience is common, said Wali Kandiwal, an independent Afghan researcher who has studied migration trends and refugees.

“Here in Afghanistan, if you want to have a job, you have to have a network that will support you,” said Kandiwal. “This is the reality.”

Although frustrated at the grim prospects of finding a job commensurate with his education, Niazi remains hopeful that his situation will change. He’s also the eldest among his siblings and knows he must soon find a way to earn an income for his family. “I’m just waiting for my lucky day to get a shot at a good job, a good opportunity,” he said.

Barakzai feels the same way, although he says he will accept any job opportunity offered to him, even it is not related to his field of computer science.  “It doesn’t matter as long as I can have a decent salary and survive, to have a life of dignity,” he said. “At least we need to find a ray of hope in this country so that we can see ourselves here.”

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